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It's always nice to try something new and even nicer if you end up enjoying it! I got this book as a present recently I although I had heard of the author from previous books he'd written and had been acclaimed for such as 'The Wonder Boys' or 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay' I hadn't read any the books so I didn't know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised.
'Gentlemen of the Road' reminded me of those classic adventure books I had read as a child like 'The Count of Monte Cristo' or 'The Man the Iron Mask'. Like these the 'Gentlemen of the Road' is a tale of high adventure set in a sprawling historical panorama. Like many of those other adventure stories it was originally published in serial form in the New York Times Sunday magazine section, which also might explain its fast pace and episodic structure.
What set this novel apart from many other similar adventure stories is it's rather unusual but refreshing choice of setting. In the story we are taken back to 950 AD but not in Anglo-Saxon England or Norman France or other more traditional settings for European medieval history, in this case we are taken to the Jewish kingdom of Khazar (where you may ask, I had to look it up!). The kingdom of the Khazars was located in what are now northern Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine Crimea and the North Caucases. The Khazars were semi nomadic Turkic people who converted to Judaism mainly for political expedience, their natural heritage still a matter of some debate. At this time the Khazars were in contact with the empire of Byzantium, the new Islamic states to the south and the marauding Norsemen of the north all of which opens up many and varied storytelling opportunities which Chabon takes full advantage.
The 'Gentlemen' of the title are two very colourful if roguish characters. They are two wandering adventurer who make a living by perpetrating small cons and hiring their swords to the highest bidder. Zelikman is a Frankish Jew, dressed in black, thin and gaunt in appearance but an able fighter and a knowledgeable healer, his companion is Amram a giant African of prodigious strength wielding a mighty axe. While travelling through the kingdom of Kazhar they get involved in a bloody coup and find themselves helping a young prince trying to avenge the death of his family and regain the throne from the usurper Buljan. Needless to say this does not turn out to be an easy task and there are plenty of battles, thrills and surprises on the way.
On the basis of this novel Michael Chabon is a very good storyteller. His prose style is clear and he keeps the story moving along a great pace throughout as we follow our heroes on their quest. It is obvious that he has tried to revive the feel of the traditional classic adventure stories of the past. Some passages have that infectious energy of the 'Boys Own' tales but without the xenophobic stereotypes or outdated morality. In fact Chabon deals with the cultural and religious conflict within the story with a very modern perspective. This time in history was a time of great change in Eastern Europe and beyond, the Western Roman Empire had now been destroyed and the lands taken over by the Germanic tribes from the north but to the east the empire still remained strong in Byzantium. However its authority and power was being challenged by the new Islamic states forming to the south and the increasingly hostile Nordic tribes to the north and west. This was a time of religious and cultural turmoil, Western Europe had entered its 'dark age' but in many ways Byzantium and Islam were about to experience their golden ages. The Kazhars aimed to remain neutral in the wider struggles of the region, their adoption of Judaism could also been seen as a neutral act since it did not align them with the Christians of Byzantium to the west or the Muslims of Arabia to the south. Judaism at the time was a respected religion by both of these major powers at the time.
This period is fertile ground for an imaginative story teller. In an interesting afterword by the author included in the edition I was reading he does state that his purpose in setting the story in the Jewish kingdom of Khazar was to highlight the fact that middle age culture did include Jewish warriors as did Christianity and Arab culture something which is mostly overlooked by our traditional view of the time.
Another nostalgic reference to the classic adventures book of the past is seen in the inclusion of illustrations throughout the book. At various points in the story the book is punctuated by black ink sketches illustrating an event that has just been described including a quote from the text at the bottom of the picture to accompany the narrative.
The story is well written and fast moving with enough twists to keep you guessing how it will end. What I also found fascinating about the story is discovering some of the history about a part of the world I knew little about and about which not many books have been written. In Western Europe we seem to have a very blinkered view by what we mean when we talk about medieval history and we don't often venture much further than England, France or Spain in our popular literature. We sometimes forget that there were many powerful forces at that time all with rich, dramatic history to tell. Chabon by setting this book in the area of Europe he did has tried to expand the horizon of what we normally are used to in historical fiction. Having done a bit of background research whilst reading the novel I've found that for the most part the world he describes is based on reality and all this makes the novel enjoyable on a separate level from simply being a good old fashioned adventure.
At just over 200 pages this is a short novel but it is a testament to the author's skill that he manages to tell such and involved tale with such economy of words while still managing to create fully formed complex characters, vivid landscapes and superb plotting. I can see potential for more of these stories in the future.
Overall 'Gentlemen of the Road' is a great read for anyone is like old fashioned rip-roaring adventure stories or simply has a interest in the history of this period. I would highly recommend it!
'Gentlemen of the Road' by Michael Chabon is published by Sceptre (paperback: 224 pages)
ISBN-10: 0340953551/ISBN-13: 978-0340953556
© Mauri 2009